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National Sports Collectors Convention provided a little something for everyone

The 38th annual National Sports Collectors Convention held in Chicago July 26-30 showed how strong the hobby is and provided something for everyone.

By Greg Bates

Brody Manning sat in a chair at the corner of a booth. The youngster looked comfortable and focused.

He resembled a pro sifting through stacks of vintage, pre-World War I baseball cards. Just a couple feet away, his grandfather, Dale, also filed through cards, occasionally glancing over to see how his little collector was doing.

The 7-year-old was too engrossed in the cards on that Saturday afternoon to even notice the thousands of attendees roaming around the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center for the 38th annual National Sports Collection Convention.

“He will spend time at these booths looking at stuff where other kids I think would be bored in 10 minutes,” said Dale Manning about Brody. “And he knows so many of these older players. He knows some of the older common guys: Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Your Mickey Mantles and your Willie Mays’, everybody knows them. Not many people know Don Drysdale when you’re 7 years old, but he does.”

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Dale, his son and grandson all flew in from San Francisco to attend their first National. By Saturday, Day 4 of the mammoth event, Brody realized he only had one more day to savor the multi-millions of cards and memorabilia items on the showroom floor.

“He’s already planning our next one,” the elder Manning said. “He says we’ve got to do this again.”

Brody might not be able to purchase too many vintage cards with his allowance, but his grandfather was on a mission to pick up as many T206s as he could. For the last decade, Dale has been concentrating on the century-old tobacco pieces.

Manning has about 60 1909-11 T206s in his collection. He found five cards at the National – including Joe Kelley and Roger Bresnahan -- to purchase, spending about $900.

“I’m done. I’m out of money,” Manning joked.

His plan with the T206s is to acquire all the Hall of Fame players. Manning already has a Ty Cobb and Cy Young, but he’s missing one glaring card: the holy grail of the card industry, Honus Wagner.

“I’ll never be able to complete the whole set. You’d have to be a multimillionaire,” Manning said. “There were a couple Wagners here at the show, and those are a couple million plus.”

At the National, Manning found a Wildfire Schulte card to buy, which finished his team set of the 1908 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs. Manning will next try to complete the New York Giants team set.

While Manning added tobacco cards to his collection, Matt Smith walked the showroom floor in search of 1967 Topps baseball cards. Smith has complete Topps sets from the present all the way back to 1968. He started working on his sets project six years ago and continues to plug away.

Smith, who has been attending the National for “10 years or so,” purchased about half a set of the 609-card ’67 product. He’s buying the cards ungraded – around excellent condition -- since it would get a little spendy if he paid for all graded cards.

“I may start graded ones with the ’57 and go back from there,” Smith said. “I’ve still got 10 sets to go before that, so that’s going to be a long time.”

Smith, who lives in Brownsburg, Ind., plans to finish the ’67 set before next year’s National in Cleveland and get working on ’66.

“It’s going to be two-year projects after that,” Smith said.

On Saturday of the National, he paid about $150 apiece for Mickey Mantle and Rod Carew cards. Smith still needs to pick up the highest priced card in the set: the Tom Seaver rookie.

For how hot graded vintage cards are these days, especially rookies, some of the modern baseball cards made big splashes at this year’s National. New York Yankees phenom Aaron Judge cards are demanding top dollar.

“There’s a nice mix of vintage and modern,” said Adam Martin, CEO and co-founder of Dave and Adam’s Card World, which was one of 10 companies located in the Corporate Pavilion at the National. “I expected to see more modern than I did, especially with Aaron Judge and the other rookies that have just made Topps baseball products totally off the hook this year.”

Beckett Grading Services Vice President of Grading and Authentication Jeromy Murray said Judge cards were pouring in to get graded on site at the show.

“Being in Chicago, Kris Bryant stuff and a lot of Chicago young guys are coming in there – but mainly Judge,” Murray said. “Judge is driving this industry right now, especially early on in the season. The pieces are coming in, high-end pieces. Really cool pieces.”

Beckett, which just launched its new autograph authentication operation in June 2016, offered on-site grading and authenticating at the convention for the first time. Murray and his staff of about 30 got their hands on great products, including Michael Jordan rookies, this year’s basketball rookie class of Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons (who could still be considered a rookie since he missed all of last season), and plenty of autographs.

“Today, we got a JFK passport signing photo,” Murray said. “We got a Neil Armstrong piece that was signed. We had some Babe Ruth signed baseballs and things like that. That’s the stuff that’s kind of interesting to me right now, because I haven’t been involved with that.”

As of the end of July, Beckett was only about 10,000 pieces away from its 10 millionth graded and authenticated item. Murray said the milestone figure should hit in the next couple of months. He’s excited to find out what piece will be the big number. Will it be a modern-era card? Will it be a vintage signed baseball? How about a non-sports piece? Everyone will have to wait and find out.

Another Successful National

As John Broggi, National Sports Collectors Convention executive director/event operations director, sat in his office and talked about the event, there was a glimmer in his eye. 

“Everybody was a little antsy about Atlantic City last year, but it turned out to be very, very good,” Broggi said. “And we built on that. Everybody who was there was saying they were coming here.”

The well-oil machine was running as well as it ever has been. Attendance numbers were sky high, the number of dealer booths was again sold out and everyone was raving about the event. To top it all, the show was back in Chicago, and fans and dealers alike couldn’t have been happier.

“I haven’t seen attendance like this, especially Thursday and Friday, in like 10 years,” said Martin, whose company is in its 27th year of setting up at the event. “I’ve told the promoter, ‘Boy, it would be great to keep it in Chicago every year.’ San Diego Comic Con is in San Diego; Gen Con, the gaming show every year is in Indianapolis – no one’s moving those. I would love to keep it here. It’s centrally located. It’s an easy place to fly in to. It has a large population for the area with a big sports following for their teams, so it’s hard to beat this location for a show. I will continue to beg to keep it here permanently. Although, we’ve got five years or so before that would be possible because of the prearranged locations already.”

The show featured more than 500 booths. The event hit its maximum number of spots in early March, which is quite a bit sooner than in past years, noted Broggi. Not many of those who were placed on a waiting list even got a chance to set up their table to sell.

The National shifts back to Cleveland next year, where it was last held in 2014. Booths for that event are already nearly sold out.

“The hobby’s strong,” Broggi said. “You can tell by the attendance on the show floor. You can see by the fact that exhibitors are looking to get back right away. The hobby is really strong, and hopefully it will continue that way.”

This year set a record for the number of collectors who purchased five-day VIP packages. The pass allowed an attendee to get a sneak peak of the event on Wednesday evening before the general public streamed in the next day. VIP holders also picked up free autographs and a bunch of goodies from the card companies that make special collectibles just for the National.

The Case Break Pavilion was consistently busy as companies ran case breaks on Tuesday through Thursday until midnight.

“Our main stage seems to have taken hold,” Broggi said. “We created it three years ago and named it after my late partner Mike Berkus last year in Atlantic City. It’s been busy all week.”

Over 100 former and a couple current athletes were on hand to sign autographs in the Tri-Star Autograph Pavilion. Henry Winkler was the lone entertainment celebrity to sign and even former cyclist Lance Armstrong made the trip to Chicago. Alex Rodriguez signed for a big crowd on Saturday afternoon; he created the most buzz when girlfriend Jennifer Lopez was by his side, surprising show-goers and even Tri-Star. J-Lo reportedly didn’t sign any items, instead hanging onto A-Rod’s arm and snapping a couple photos of her boyfriend in action.

One addition to the National this year was PSA giving collectors a chance to get their photo taken for a baseball card, which was then encapsulated in about five minutes. The promotion was free for everyone.

When Broggi wasn’t slammed with event obligations, he was able to walk the showroom floor. He was impressed with what was on display.

“High-graded vintage cards are just selling for unbelievable numbers. Unbelievable numbers,” Broggi said. “It’s strong and people who collected in the past 20 years and have a nice vintage card collection are reaping the benefits right now financially. It’s crazy some of the numbers that are being seen. We actually had a Honus Wagner sold here at the show.”

Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.